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The Sport of Sales: Key Lessons From Soccer On Sales Team Management

Soccer can teach us a lot about sales team management, team coordination, and the importance of using the right tools. Here’s how each team position maps to a winning sales team.

Challenges with sales team management

What can soccer teach us about sales team management?

A lot, and here’s why:

If sales is a sport, many teams today struggle to win their games.

The problems stem from a lack of coordination and alignment between sales teams, their marketing counterparts and management teams, and the tools they use.

Sales teams today face six main challenges:

  1. Inconsistent experiences for the customer
  2. Running outdated sales plays
  3. Passing poor intent leads
  4. Lack of access to tools
  5. Poor customer support
  6. Poor CRM hygiene

#1 Inconsistent experiences

While sales teams may have different roles – SDRs, account managers, and customer success specialists – the customer only sees one unit. 

This means that they expect unified communications and a consistent experience from your team, regardless of who they talk to.

Common mistakes like handing off a prospect to an account manager without context, or repeating discovery sessions with an (understandably) impatient prospect only contribute to lower conversions and retention.

#2 Outdated sales plays

There’s a place for every sales tactic in the book, but it’s important for sales teams to evolve with the times. 

Back in the days of limited product information, customers were obligated to jump through hoops to get more information about products and services.

Nowadays, customers can access different sources of information about their problems, possible solutions, and competitive differences between those solutions. 

As such, leaning too heavily towards gated content, for example, or failing to engage target communities both online and offline, can lead to churn or missed sales.

#3 Passing poor intent leads

Poor intent leads have no desire to buy right now, but they tie up valuable time for sales reps. The lead scoring model of many sales organizations is partly to blame here. 

Without prioritizing the right actions (e.g., leads wanting to speak to sales), or allocating too much weight to the wrong actions (e.g., assuming high intent for an e-book download), sales teams end up with low-intent leads that tie up pipeline velocity.

#4 Lack of access to tools

Tools are not the bread and butter of your sales team – your sales strategy is. But the right tools can help accelerate sales motions, track customer activity, and unearth opportunities for upsells and cross-sells. 

You can track customer data in spreadsheets, but a CRM simplifies that process. You can manually enrich prospect data, but lead-enrichment tools like Clearbit speed up this process. 

The goal is to identify sales activities that require a high investment with a low return on time and get the right tools to take on that workload.

#5 Poor customer support

Getting customers is one thing, but keeping them is a whole ‘nother ball game. The quality of customer support can make or break a customer’s perception of you and determine whether they refer you to other people.

As with the sales motion itself, good customer support requires coordination, context, and constant communication to work. 

Without coordination at the team and organizational level, sales teams may end up inadvertently worsening a customer’s experience.

#6 Poor CRM hygiene

A CRM is like a house that stores your leads – but you have to keep it clean for it to be usable.

Sales teams may retain old, inaccurate, or low-intent contacts in their CRMs, and port this data over to their sales and marketing campaigns.

This results in low email open rates, wasted ad spend due to poor targeting, and low sales conversions. Ongoing CRM hygiene can eliminate many of these problems.

The solution to these problems is for sales teams and their companies to coordinate on all aspects of the sales process. 

By adopting a ‘team sport’ approach, they can hand off prospects more smoothly, reduce churn, minimize administrative tasks, increase win rates, and drive growth. 

The best analogy here is a game of soccer.

Tips from soccer on sales team management

For those who aren’t familiar with the most popular sport in the world, here’s a quick refresher.

Soccer is a field sport played between two teams of 11 players each. 

You have strikers in front to score goals, midfielders to create scoring opportunities, wingers to man the sides, defenders to stop the opposing team’s strikers, and a goalkeeper to stop goals from going into the net.

You also have a referee to officiate the game, linesmen to catch offsides, and coaches on both sides of the field to run plays and substitutions. 

While it’s not the most popular game in the US, soccer is the #1 sport in many parts of the world.

The role of each player on the sales team

Looking at the soccer field lineup, we can map each soccer player to a sales team member as follows:

  • Account Executive <> Striker
  • Sales Development Representative <> Midfielder
  • Sales Ops Specialist <> Winger
  • Sales Trainer <> Referee
  • Customer Success Specialist <> Defender
  • Head of Sales <> Goalkeeper
  • VP Sales <> Coach
  • Football <> CRM

#1 Account Executive <> Striker

Account executives close deals for the team. They’re the final point of contact for the customer during a sale, and they use all the context and their product knowledge to score a win for the sales org. 

This position is similar to strikers (also known as ‘forwards’ in soccer terminology) who take the ball and run toward the opposite team’s goal to score.

#2 Sales Development Representative <> Midfielder

The SDR finds opportunities to pass to the AE for closing. Aptly positioned in the middle of the field, the SDR goes onto different acquisition ‘fields’ (such as LinkedIn) to source new leads, start up conversations, and eventually pass the lead onto an AE.

#3 Sales Ops Specialist <> Winger

The wingers in a soccer game run along the sides of the field, providing critical support to other players both offensively and defensively. In a sales organization, SalesOps specialists provide this critical support through data, software tools, and reporting.

#4 Sales Trainer <> Referee

The referee, while not belonging to any team, officiates the entire game. They look out for fouls and offsides and set up free kicks and penalties.

In a sales context, the sales trainer observes reps’ behaviors during sales motions and provides guidance aligned with the organization’s sales playbook.

#5 Customer Success Specialist <> Defender

In soccer, defenders prevent the opposing team from advancing too far into the goal area to score. To achieve this, they use speed and situational awareness to identify and block opponents from scoring a goal.

From a sales perspective, the opponent is churn. Customer success specialists are responsible for identifying customers most likely to churn and preventing them from leaving. 

They accomplish this by resolving customer queries quickly, providing implementation support, and gathering feedback on how to improve the customer experience.

#6 Head of Sales <> Goalkeeper

The goalkeeper in soccer is the last line of defense against the opponent (churn). Their speed and reflexes are crucial to stopping any goal attempts, and they’re also responsible for defensive formations during free-kicks. Many goalkeepers double as the captains of their soccer teams.

In sales, the sales manager or head of sales coaches their team from behind, helping them assume defensive positions to prevent churn.

Soccer goalkeepers also kick the ball further afield to start the game, and where the ball lands will determine the advantage the team will have during that play. 

Similarly, the sales manager’s strategy determines which direction each quarter will begin in and how much leeway the team has to score new deals.

#7 VP Sales <> Coach

In larger organizations, the VP of Sales or CEO is responsible for managing the entire team on and off-field, setting expectations, and driving team cohesion. 

Coaches set up training sessions, ensure each player has their soccer kit, and work with each individual player on their game and career development. They also hire and fire players as the situation warrants.

In sales, the VP or CEO hires new salespeople, gives them the resources to perform their best, and substitutes players as needed.

#8 Football <> Tools

While we take it for granted, the ball plays an equally important role in soccer. A deflated football would deliver a poor experience for everyone involved. 

For a soccer game to take place, the ball must be well-pumped and adhere to certain standards. It must be spherical, made of suitable material, and fall within a specific weight, pressure, and circumference range.

In sales, the ball represents the tools you use. Use the wrong tools and you’ll have a hard time scoring goals. Use the right tools — ones aligned to your sales strategy and workflow — and you’ll score goals more easily.

The stadium matters for effective sales team management

Success in sales goes beyond just the immediate sales team — the organization also plays a role in its success.

In soccer, the home team can provide much-needed encouragement to carry the team towards glory. Similarly, the rest of a company plays a role in supporting its sales team to win deals and drive growth.

The level of encouragement also rises depending on whether you’re playing a ‘home’ or ‘away’ game. 

If you’re playing firmly in your category — your home ground — then you’re in a better position to win. But if you’re playing in the opponent’s stadium (their category), winning becomes harder.

It’s also important to use your stadium frequently for training and practice games. More training leaves you better prepared to score goals — just as more sales training, sales calls, and talking to customers prepares you for successful sales engagements.

Keep score with the right leaderboards

Soccer tournaments track different metrics — from shots on goals and tackles to offsides and possession rates. 

Similarly, your sales team should track the metrics that matter: win rates, sales qualified opportunities, pipeline velocity, and cost per lead.

Tracking your sales metrics allows you to optimize for and allocate resources to the right ones while allowing your team the freedom to color creatively within those lines.

Manage sales teams and play the game to win

Sales is a sport, and sales leaders must employ the right team formations and practice often to prepare their teams for success.

Playing in the right stadiums and gaining the crowd’s support is crucial for morale. The best sales teams identify and play to their strengths consistently. Finally, using the right tools improves your chances of success.

Mo Shehu

Mo Shehu

Mohammed Shehu, Ph.D. writes on marketing, content, and tech for B2B brands. You can find him online @shehuphd everywhere.

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